Exploring Dolphins battles in secondary and linebacker and pressing questions on defense

With Dolphins training camp approaching on July 28, asking and answering five questions on Miami’s defense:

What could the starting group look like when the Dolphins open in nickel, which is often the case because they played five defensive backs more than half the time last season?

The players most likely to be on the field the most in that lineup are defensive linemen Davon Godchaux, Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jerome Baker, cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones and safeties Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe. That’s 10.

The nickel spot - and 11th and final spot on the field in such a lineup - could be filled by rookie cornerback Noah Igbinoghene or cornerbacks Nik Needham or Jamal Perry or perhaps a safety (Adrian Colbert or Brandon Jones or Kavon Frazier), with McCain possibly moving to nickel cornerback in that Colbert/Jones/Frazier scenario.

This lineup would be something like a 4-2-5 (four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs).

When Miami plays six defensive backs (which it did a league-high 29 percent of the time last season), one among Godchaux, Wilkins, Ogbah and Lawson likely would go to the bench, with Van Noy and Baker likely staying on the field at linebacker.

When Miami plays three linebackers, either Raekwon McMillan, Vince Biegel or Kamu Grugier-Hill figures to join Van Noy and Baker.

In four-linebacker lineups, two among McMillan, Biegel and Grugier-Hill could be in the lineup, with Elandon Roberts and possibly Trent Harris, Andrew Van Ginkel and rookie Curtis Weaver factoring in at times.

McMillan figures to play more on traditional running downs, Grugier-Hill on traditional passing downs.

What linebacker plays most after Van Noy and Baker?

This should be fascinating, because the Dolphins like Roberts (from their familiarity with him in New England) and see Grugier-Hill as a possible starter.

They also appreciate Biegel’s non-stop motor off the edge, but didn’t want to commit significant money to Biegel longterm in discussions this offseason. And they respect McMillan’s effectiveness against the run. The battle among Biegel, Van Ginkel and Weaver for edge snaps should be interesting.

Roberts started 5, 14, 11 and 3 games in his four years with the Patriots, in order. He got 11 starts when Flores was pseudo-defensive coordinator.

Grugier-Hill started 10 and 6 games the past two seasons for Philadelphia and he’s very much in the mix to start here.

One player called McMillan and Biegel the front-runners entering camp to start in four-linebacker sets (along with sure starters Van Noy and Baker), but that’s just his opinion. Another person cautioned not to overlook Grugier-Hill as a potential starter.

Matchups - and the skills of each player - will obviously play a huge role in playing time among linebackers excluding Van Noy and Baker, who should play most downs.

Who wins the nickel cornerback job?

The Dolphins would love if Igbinoghene does, because you would ideally like your first-round picks playing a lot if there’s no quality veteran ahead of him. But his nickel snaps were limited at Auburn and there will be an adjustment, even though he’s a dynamic athlete.

Needham struggled on the boundary late last year after an excellent start and allowed an opponent passer rating of 116.6 for the season. Perry permitted a 100.1 passer rating in his coverage area and is on the bubble to make the team.

Besides nickel corner, what should be some of the other most competitive battles for roster spots?

The backup safety spots behind McCain and Rowe, with that competition including Texas rookie Brandon Jones, Colbert (five late season starts for Miami), Frazier (two starts and 44 games for the Cowboys), Stephen Parker (two acrobatic interceptions as a rookie last season) and Clayton Fejedelem (six starts and 48 career games for the Bengals).

What’s tricky is that Miami likely needs Fejedelem as Walt Aikens’ replacement on special teams. Miami assuredly will keep its third-round pick, Jones. So is there room for a fifth safety (Colbert or Frazier or Parker)?

And keep an eye on which of the young corners sticks among Needham (a front-runner to stick but struggled in December), Tae Hayes (impressive in a late-season cameo), Cordrea Tankersley (hasn’t played in a game in 20 months), Ryan Lewis (the most experienced of the players in this paragraph), Perry (gone from nickel starter in 2019 to a bubble player in this camp), Nate Brooks (something of a long shot) and Ken Webster (former Patriots’ 2019 seventh-rounder had some good moments before getting injured last season).

Perhaps three of those stick behind Howard, Byron Jones and Igbinoghene. But Miami will be looking on the waiver wire, too.

And the final spot or two at linebacker should be interesting, with potentially room for two among Van Ginkel (difficult to see Miami not investing a second year in him), Harris (came on strong in the final two games of 2019) and Sam Eguavoen, who was more effective in more of a pass-rushing role late in the season.

James Crawford, undrafted Pittsburgh (and ex-UF) rookie Kylan Johnson and/or Calvin Munson could be gone before camp if the Dolphins are required to cut from 87 players to the 75 to 80 range.

What else should we keep an eye on?

Though second-round rookie Raekwon Davis is the front-runner for the No. 3 tackle job -- and backup nose behind Godchaux -- don’t discount Zach Sieler, who consistently has exceeded expectations since walking on at Division 2 Ferris State.

And if fifth-rounder Jason Strowbridge impresses in practice and preseason, you could see the North Carolina rookie carving out a spot playing inside occasionally on passing downs.

Another veteran very much on the bubble: defensive end Avery Moss, who started eight games last season and had 25 tackles, but no tackles for loss.

Here’s my Tuesday piece with thoughts on five percolating questions on offense.

Here’s my Wednesday six-pack of Miami Heat nuggets.

Here’s my Wednesday six-pack of Miami Marlins nuggets.